Out of pure curiosity and an itch for hiking, my girlfriend and I decided to visit the whirlpool of the Niagara Gorge. This is the long, but scenically-rewarding wooden staircase, which plods its way down to the depths of the gorge.
As remnants of summer vegetation still cover the forest floor, signs cover the entrance to the trail.
There is everything from body scans, to serious rescues, to COVID safety guidelines, to biodiversity issues swirling around down here. The scenario is equally as complex as the Niagara River itself.
Body scans? Yes, you read that correctly. Before we took our first step down the unending stairs, we saw a peculiar wooden post. This is 2020. On top of the post, you see a Wi-Fi or network sort of image. Initially, I was thinking this was a Wi-Fi hotspot for the public, available for all to use in case of an emergency.
I was mistaken.
Consider this a public announcement from the woods, if you will.
I’m just the messenger. Your body is being scanned by an infrared detector when you walk into the gorge’s whirlpool entrance.
The writing on the wooden post reads: “Inside this post is an infrared trail counter, which allows Niagara Parks to count the number of people who access our trails.
“This information helps improves trail planning and development initiatives and informs future trail management decisions.”
It then reads,
“Please note that this device is not a camera, and your image is not captured.”
Where was the announcement, vote, or agreement on such a feature being installed at a public trailhead? And, where was the grammar with “helps improves”?
Although I have nothing to hide on or within my body, this was alarming to me on a personal note, and as a local who loves the forests.
The walls of the Niagara Gorge are 420 million years old. The forests down there are said to be one of the top biodiversity hotspots of Canada. These trails have inspired locals and tourists from afar ever since humans called Niagara Falls a tourist destination, and to Aboriginals current and prior.
I arrived to hike the gorge on another recent date, only to find a blaring scenario.
I see rescue vehicles with flashing lights piled up around the whirlpool entrance. The parking lot there is full to the brim. I then also notice that I’ve run out of free parking as a local, as new signage, which encourages the use of a specific app to pay for parking, is steadfast in the ground.
The previously low-key parking lot across from the golf course is now a paid station, too. The metal staircase parking area is dangerously full as well. There are folks slowly lapping the parking lot, waiting to see if someone pulls out of their parking spot.
Upon arrival, the main trail map is covered with arrows to show which specific direction to walk on the trails. I’ve never seen this before, either. And I have hiked a lot of trials, locally and internationally.
There is something eerie going on regarding the triangle between the public, governing bodies, and nature. I can’t help but focus on it, because the safety of our ecosystems, at this rate, ultimately depends on how our burgeoning human population treats it.
More rescues than any year in recent history. Paid parking becomes implemented for the entirety of the gorge. Arrows on the trails, and an infrared body scan before entering the whirlpool trailhead. Oh, and you might need an app for this hike.
Are people flocking to nature and our Niagara trails at a hyper-local scale? If that’s the case, then I feel like the sheer number of people simply leads to more rescues, less social distancing, and sometimes, negative impacts on biodiversity.
When we continually remove the modest remaining green spaces in NOTL, we disrupt habitat corridors and areas of rest for coyotes. So, when they are displaced and show up in NOTL’s suburbs, they have become the villains. They are misbehaving in our territory as a result of consequences they can’t control.
My theory is this: coyotes lost habitat, and humans lost social hobbies and constructs. So, we now take what is available, in a new and experimental sort of age. We try hiking and checking out the gorge on a weekend for the first time, and we are maximizing our travel opportunities within the area.
To continue my theory, we’re now seen as the coyotes who show up in the backyard and can’t behave themselves. Therefore, we apparently require paid parking, permits, a body scan and an app to best respect the 420 million-year-old gorge
I don’t have all the answers, but what I can say is that I believe several profound events can’t happen to one area without perpetual repercussions, often being referred to as “the new normal.”
I suppose I just miss the simplicity of wanting to go for a fabulous world-class hike in Niagara.
At 27 years old, I find myself saying, “we used to just pull up, walk down, climb some boulders, find a snake or two, maybe fish, and then head back home for dinner. And we did it without an infrared body scan or an app.”
In my humble opinion, this makes nature that little bit less accessible. Our relationship with our natural heritage is at stake. What’s your relationship with it all?